I just came back from a week in North Carolina doing something that currently tops my list of Coolest Things Ever. I spent a week at SIRCHIE, a company that manufactures law enforcement and forensic products. They also do training in various aspects of criminal investigation and forensic tools for police, sheriffs’ departments etc. This year they agreed to offer a similar class in evidence collection for writers.
For a suspense author the experience was, in short, awesome. I do a fair amount of research for my books, which includes reading in the field and making several expert contacts for each story to ensure that I have my details straight. I’ve never been a TV CSI fan because of the factual inaccuracies rampant in the shows. To get the training and hands-on time with the tools of the trade with experts in the field was absolutely fascinating.
We started out working with the various powders used to lift prints from flat surfaces. I have to admit I was getting a bit cocky . Turns out I leave ‘light’ prints, meaning the ridges in my fingers aren’t raised much. (I blame typing, although apparently handling paper a lot will also wear them down.) In many instances I wasn’t able to lift clear prints at all. By noon I was vocally announcing my intention to turn to a life of crime. Those plans were short-lived, however. After lifting prints from a mirrored surface with copper metallic powder and looking at them under the comparator (which is a magnifier with a screen), I saw that not only were my prints completely visible, I’d also left most of a palm print and half of my wrist.
So ended my not-yet-started career change as a burglar.
The blood stain section of class was my personal favorite. One of my current projects includes a heroine who’s a blood spatter expert, so this was right up my alley. And I have to tell you, it is soooo cool to spray areas where you’d expect to find blood in a scene and see the stain luminesce.
To the right is one of four stations used when detectives go to an advanced blood stain pattern class. I’m absolutely coveting a spot in that class, just to watch them scale and pattern the various areas of spatter to re-enact the crime scene.
At left are some of the materials we used when we restored a serial number that had been filed off a piece of metal. After sanding the area for far too long! we cleaned it off and then poured that small vial of acid on it. When it was done bubbling we wiped it off and ran it under water, holding it at a 45 degree angle, checking for recovered numbers. I had to do mine twice before I could see them…I lack the strength to sand hard enough, apparently!
We also spent time running presumptive tests for cocaine and meth. Another fascinating experience. Oh, and those movies that show someone sticking their finger in a white powder and tasting it? Pure Hollywood BS.
We also spent an afternoon with one of the state’s leading fingerprint analysts. That was an eye-opener. I had somehow thought that there was more science to the process but it actually relies a great deal on the experience and training of the examiners. I freely admit that I didn’t shine when it came to comparing prints under a magnifier. All those loops, whorls, arches, deltas and demarcations…my eyes started glazing over as I tried to find unique characteristics. That’s what examiners do before submitting prints to AFIS (Automated Fingerprint Identification System). They plot 12-16 unique characteristics of the print, as well as telling the system whether to look for whorls, loops or arches. Then the system spits back around 18 possibilities. The analyst compares the print from the scene to the ones the system sent back to determine whether it matches one of the prints on file. Only about 10% will match, since AFIS has only people with criminal records.
All in all, after a week in class, I’m left wondering why I didn’t swallow my distaste for chemistry and pursue a degree in forensic science. And when I wax enthusiastic about how I spent a week of my summer, I get more than my share of weird looks. I don’t care…what we find thrilling is as unique to us as our fingerprints.
What’s the most thrilling thing you’ve done lately?